A few days ago I was chatting with my dad about our various writing projects.
Dad: You know how you’ve been writing about Quentin Tarantino?
Dad: You know he used to work in a video store?
Dad: And you used to work in a video store?
Dad: Well there you go.
Well there I go. Once upon a time Quentin Tarantino worked in a video store – and so did I.
Today I write about pop culture, and Tarantino makes it.
There you go.
Tarantino’s latest film also begins “Once upon a time …” and as to be expected, reactions to his “movie movie universe” movie, Inglourious Basterds, are once again as mixed as his genre conventions.
Though I didn’t explicitly say so in my recent three part post here for Bitch exploring the question of feminism in Tarantino's work, I'm a fan – a cautious, conscientious fan, who recognizes that his work is problematic on many levels. For me, the combination of the issues in his work, and the visceral pleasure of the movie experiences he creates, presents a conflict that is worth exploring. Additionally, and I think this is crucial to my experience and interpretation of his work, he is a movie-maker of, and pop culture influence on, my generation. Pulp Fiction is as much a marker in my life as Star Wars, Goonies, or Trainspotting, Wonder Woman, 90210, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Tarantino and I may not have grown up watching the same movies, regardless of our once-upon-a-time employ, but his work has led me to his influences, which in turn have furthered and enriched my relationship to popular culture.
So why didn't I enjoy Inglourious Basterds?
Admittedly, I wasn't too keen on the premise: a Dirty-Dozenesque bunch of guys kill Nazis and collect their scalps. But a Tarantino premise is just that – a MacGuffin if you will (though here, the MacGuffin could easily be World War II). A Tarantino film is very much an extended tagline, though also much more than that too, and Inglourious Basterds has been receiving rave reviews claiming it's a return to form and his best, most mature film.
I can't agree.
The reasons why are for those who have either already seen the film, read the script, or who don't care about spoilers. There are SPOILERS ahead.
Also, since I've already addressed the issue at length, this is a feminist giving her opinion of the movie rather than a feminist critique.
The movie started out promising. The first scene is gorgeously filmed, brilliantly acted, and choreographed for maximum tension. Much has been written about Christoph Waltz's alternately charming and terrifying portrayal of the character, Col. Hans Landa. But Denis Menochet's dairy farmer, Perrier LaPadite, more than holds his own as a man trying to protect his own family, as well as the one hiding beneath his floorboards.
In the next chapter we meet the Basterds and it becomes a different film, no less Tarantino – and perhaps even more so. The Basterds bring the funny with their vengeance as they scalp Nazis, carve Swastikas in their victim's foreheads, and bash their enemies brains in with baseball bats. They get nicknames too: The Bear Jew (Eli Roth), Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt) and The Little Man (B.J. Novak). One of the men is an ex-Nazi recruited by the Basterds named, Hugo Stiglitz (after the real-life Mexican actor of the same name). Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) gets his own mini-movie back-story that along with a later, and unrelated, voice-over by Sam Jackson gives the impression that the tone of the movie might be heading in a more familiar and playful direction. But time and again we are in a cinematic tug of war between humor and play, and polish and terror.
Now I can get with a revenge fantasy; I can even pretend for the sake of an engaging film that all Nazis involved in World War II were evil. But the scenes Tarantino strings together here, many of which are admittedly captivating, are so disconnected tonally as to frustrate the point of the film. Is there a point? Is revenge the point? Is killing Nazis as ruthlessly as possible the point? (Yes.)
Even mid-way through the movie there were enough satisfying moments that I was hopeful the film would be as good as so many critics claimed. But for me the end didn't provide the emotional release of Tarantino's previous films. I mean, Beatrix kills Bill. Stuntman Mike gets the shit kicked out of him by Zoë Bell. Everyone gets theirs and here the Germans do too. But it wasn't satisfying.
Not because it was ahistorical. And not because Hitler shouldn't have been pumped full of bullets. But because by the climatic scene we'd already been exposed to enough disturbing violence – and yes, of course I expect sickening violence from Tarantino, I did recognize what movie I was going to – but I didn't expect what felt like chaos. I didn't expect people burning to death to be shot with machine guns too. (If they're burning to death, why must they also be pumped full of angry bullets?) I guess it's not my fantasy.
While the violence in Kill Bill was so over-the-top it was ridiculous - even excusably playful - here it's nauseating. Inglorious Basterds went beyond playful manipulation of movie conventions and it's unclear if we are really supposed to root for our "heroes" when they are just as sadistic as our enemies.
Prior to this end battle we have been watching Hitler and Goebbels watching scenes of destruction and laughing. Are we supposed to take pleasure in doing just what they were? Is this Tarantino's commentary on movie audiences? Asking us to excuse or cheer the Basterds's sadism because their enemies deserve punishment is a pretty big request. And it goes beyond vengeance into sadist territory when we see the look on Eli Roth's face – maniacal and sad – as he dishes out justice as terribles as his acting.
The true heroes of the film are two unrelated female characters. The first is Shoshanna Dreyfus, played with radiant and somber bravery by Mélanie Laurent.
Back in the first chapter, it is her family that is hiding beneath the floorboards and that were murdered by Nazi bullets in front of her. After her solo escape from the massacre she resides in occupied Paris under an assumed name and runs a small movie theater she inherited from extended relatives.
She has a lover, but is courted by an aggressive and presumptuous young Nazi "hero" and actor who refuses to take her no for an answer. He arrogantly believes that convincing Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to host a film premiere at her theater will flatter her. She uses the opportunity to gather all the high-ranking Nazis and set fire to them.
The Basterds have the same idea, and the premiere is when the storylines converge.
The Basterds are informed of the event by a German actress working as a spy for the British. Diane Kruger is elegant and sophisticated in her role as Bridget Von Hammersmark (a minor observation – for a German actress Kruger's accent was rather forced – though perhaps this was intentional).
Bridget manages to get three of our anti-heroes into the premiere as her escorts. An overlooked detail reveals her subterfuge to Col. Landa and he suffocates her with his bare hands – we are forced to watch as she gasps for breath and her eyes cloud over.
Shoshanna is graphically murdered too – but not before she has set her plan in motion. As the theater gets set to burn she's approached by the young officer pursuing her affections. In very Tarantino form she shoots him, then he shoots her. But with Shoshanna we see bits of flesh and gut about the floor she has fallen to and pain on her face as she cries. It's choreographed and lingering and upsetting. Yes, violence is done to men here too, but even the graphic head-bashing was shot in wide-angle, not close-up. Heads are held down while being scalped and we don't see the victim's eyes. A close-quartered fire-fight is shot so quickly it's difficult to see who got shot where. Were the women given the most emotional, drawn-out deaths because they were the most heroic characters and our suffering at their loss was some twisted way of honoring them?
I'm not so concerned with the level of violence, what bothers me is how differently it was filmed with Shoshanna and Bridget and with the overdone destruction at the end. In fact, there was quite a lot I like about Inglourious Basterds. The use of music and cinematography in Chapter One was luscious. Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, and Denis Menochet all turned in stellar performances, as did Michael Fassbender as a British film critic turned soldier. I liked the humor, and I liked Shoshanna's fierce application of make-up-as-war-paint.
This is my initial reaction. And if anything, Tarantino provokes us to react. I get what he's doing, or rather, what we his intellectual audience are assuming he's trying to accomplish. It's part Jewish revenge fantasy, part comedy, part cultural exploration of art and language, part fairytale of one woman's swan song, ten-parts Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, and a meditation on the power of cinema.
But is it?
As Tarantino told CNN "I don't even know how I do what I do." -- which I think is a fitting, if simplified, summation of his intent.
I'm surprised that my criticism of this film is so similar to criticism of his other movies – movies that I have enjoyed (choppy, no cohesion, overdone violence . . . ). Perhaps I'll change my mind. Perhaps I won't. But today I'll simply say that I thought it was inglorious indeed.
I'll leave with you with some other opinions of the film, and I hope you'll take advantage of the comments section to share yours.
Manohla Dargis for the New York Times:"[T]oo often in "Inglourious Basterds" the filmmaking falls short. Mr. Tarantino is a great writer and director of individual scenes, though he can have trouble putting those together, a difficulty that has sometimes been obscured by the clever temporal kinks in his earlier work."
David Denby for The New Yorker: "It's disconnected from feeling, and an eerie blankness—it's too shallow to be called nihilism—undermines even the best scenes."
Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic: "Tarantino, a famously derivative filmmaker, has managed to create out of these parts something that seems entirely new: a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to their would-be exterminators."
Mick LaSalle for the San Francisco Chronicle (On a side note, if LaSalle likes a film I usually don't, and if he gives an unfavorable review to something I generally enjoy it. He hated Kill Bill.):“It’s not enough to say that “Inglourious Basterds” is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie. It’s the first movie of his artistic maturity, the film his talent has been promising for more than 15 years. The picture contains all the things his fans like about Tarantino - the wit, the audacity, the sudden violence - but this movie’s emotional core and bigness of spirit are new… . “Inglourious Basterds” provides exhilarating release, but it’s also a deeply sad film. It leaves the audience suspended in a tangle of strong and conflicting thoughts and feelings, the hallmark of great art.”
Daniel Mendelsohn for Newsweek:“At the climax of Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Inglourious Basterds, which is set during World War II and which is concerned, at least superficially, with Jews, you get to witness a horribly familiar Holocaust atrocity—with a deeply unfamiliar twist. A group of unsuspecting people is tricked into entering a large building; the doors of the building are locked and bolted from the outside; then the building is set on fire. The twist here is not that Tarantino, a director with a notorious penchant for explicit violence, shows you in loving detail what happens inside the burning building—the desperate banging on the doors, the bodies alight, the screams, confusion, the flames. The twist is that this time the people inside the building are Nazis and the people who are killing them are Jews. What you make of the movie—and what it says about contemporary culture—depends on whether that inversion will leave audiences cheering or horrified.”